Today: April 11, 2024

Portmanteau Horror

This year will see the limited release of V/H/S and The ABCs Of Death, modern examples of the Portmanteau or Anthology film.

By Edward Boff

This year will see the limited release of V/H/S and The ABCs Of Death, modern examples of the Portmanteau or Anthology
This is where, instead of one feature
length plotline, we have a collection of short stories, often with a linking
narrative. Many genres have experimented with the format, from comedy (Everything
You Every Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Too Afraid To Ask
), to crime (Pulp
), to opera (Aria), but horror has proven its biggest success.
Perhaps that comes from the genre’s roots in the scary campfire tale and the
traditional ghost story. Whatever the reason, portmanteaus have a lot to
recommend them, not least because if a particular story isn’t working, there’ll
be another in a few minutes. With this in mind, let’s look at a few
notable examples…

Dead Of Night (1945)
Ealing Studio
is best remembered for its charming comedies, however it raised
quite a stir when it released this quirky little horror – questions were even
raised in Parliament about it! It’s hard to imagine the film having such
an effect today but it does still pack a punch, it virtually set the trend for
the whole subgenre. Of all the portmanteau films, Dead Of Night has one
of the best linking stories for one of these films: an architect, invited to a
weekend in the country, realises that he remembers the cottage and people he’s
visiting from a dream… or was it a nightmare? The other guests all
share tales of the paranormal of their own, and this is the film’s other big
strength – pacing. Proper thought has gone into what order the stories
work best in. It starts with two short and simple tales, then it goes for
a longer, more elaborate narrative. It even has a comedy segment about a
golfer being haunted by a not-terribly-good ghost, many have criticized this
section but it works well in giving the audience a chance to catch their breath.
Following that comes the one-two punch of the story that everyone remembers –
the ventriloquist’s dummy tale, and the nightmarish finale to the linking
story. Nearly 70 years on, Dead Of Night still brings a lot of
chills from a tag-team of Ealing’s best talent.

Three Cases Of Murder (1955)
The sleeper on the list; not many
know about this trio of tales from Wessex Films, despite it offering
some of the best pre-Hammer British
. This is actually one case of murder (a whodunit
section called You Killed Elizabeth) sandwiched between two chilling
supernatural tales. The first, The Picture, tells of a museum
guide encountering the strange, ethereal people that live within an old
painting. The direction and style are almost expressionist and it all
builds to an unbelievably unsettling and chilling climax. The final tale
stars Orson Welles as Lord Mountdrago, the boorish Home Secretary who,
after humiliating a member of the Opposition (Alan Badel), finds his
rival invading his dreams. Welles is a joy to watch and the film plays
the psychological aspect very well, with fun dream sequences that actually feel
like dreams, leading to another final scene that will put shivers down the
spine. Overlooked for years, but it’s well worth a watch.

Tales Of Terror (1962)
Roger Corman
, following the success of his earlier Edgar Allan Poe movies,
brings a trio of tales of mystery and imagination to the screen, scripted by Richard
(I Am Legend) Matheson
. Morella shows a daughter trying to
reconnect with her father (Vincent Price), who blames her for the mother
dying giving birth, although the spirit of mother Morella has other
ideas. The Black Cat is actually a mash-up of two different Poe
stories, The Black Cat and The Cask Of Amontillado, but they fit
together extremely well. Drunkard Montressor Herringbone (Peter Lorre)
introduces, by accident, his long suffering wife to a foppish wine expert
(Price again) who becomes her lover. Herringbone comes up with what he thinks
is a perfect revenge but doesn’t count on his wife’s kitty. The Case
Of M. Valdemar
tells of how the dying titular character (Price one more
time) employs a hypnotist (Basil Rathbone) to help him cope with the
pain of his terminal condition but ends up trapped in a state between life and
death. All three stories are worthwhile but it’s the middle segment that
is by far the best, since it works as a pitch black comedy, which would
prefigure the next of Corman’s Poe movies, The Raven.

Black Sabbath (1963)
In Italian horror, and indeed the
Italian film industry as a whole, Mario Bava is a legendary name and
this is a perfect example why. Black Sabbath (yes, this is where
the band got the name from) was originally titled I Tre Volti della Paura
(The Three Faces Of Fear)
, and that’s a better title since this is three
different sorts of scary story. The first, The Telephone, is
almost a prototype of the Giallo subgenre Bava would later make some of
the earliest (and best) examples of. The second, The Wurdulak, is
a full-blooded vampire tale, with a superb central performance from Boris
(who also ‘hosts’ the film as a whole with an introduction and
epilogue). Finally, A Drop Of Water is by far the most terrifying
– a ghost story with a simple set up and a truly horrific spectre. All
three show Bava’s expertise at camerawork, use of colour and lighting (he
started off as a cinematographer) to not only set the mood but also make the
film look a lot more elaborate and expensive than it actually was. Bonus
points for the very last scene of the Italian cut, that has Bava and Karloff
tell the audience in a pretty funny way that, if they’re still too scared by
what they’ve seen, “just repeat to yourself it’s just a show, I should
really just relax”!

Spirits Of The Dead (1968)
Poe provides the basis again for this
French/Italian co-production. Three different directors bring three very
different approaches to the material. Firstly, Barbarella director
Roger Vadim directs the missus Jane Fonda in
Metzengerstein. An almost Caligula-esque noblewoman accidentally burns
alive the object of her affections (played by her brother Peter Fonda in
an extra creepy touch if you think about it …) and finds a connection with
his prize horse. This is by far the slightest tale, with nice design work
and style, but very little else to recommend it. Next comes Louis
Malle’s William Wilson
, where a soldier tells of the many times in his life
has been invaded by a double. However this isn’t an “evil twin” tale,
it’s quite the opposite… with Alain Delon as the truly menacing
titular character. Finally is Frederico Fellini’s Toby Dammit,
where Terence Stamp acts his socks off as a burnout of an actor brought
to Rome, struggling with his path to self-destruction and visions of the Devil
in the form of a creepy little girl. This is an amazing accomplishment,
with a truly unique visual flair that just screams the sixties, and with a
bravura climax of driving through an unreal Italian countryside.
Honestly, Toby Dammit on its own is worth seeing the whole film for.
While the film isn’t really conventionally “scary”, it’s a truly
unique work from one of the cinema’s most legendary names.

Creepshow (1992)
Now here’s a winning combo: George
A. Romero
directing stories written by Stephen King inspired by the EC
horror comics
of the 1950s with special effects by Tom Savini.
It’s pure geek-bait for horror fans! This full-blooded tribute to titles
such as Shock-Suspense Stories and The Haunt Of Fear was sold
with the tagline “The Most Fun You’ll Have Being Scared”, and it’s
hard to argue with that. Five morality tales in a very consciously comic
book style are presented here. Father’s Day shows the mean
patriarch of a family rise from the grave as a zombie not looking for brains…
but cake. (?) The Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verrill has Stephen King
himself acting as a dimwitted yokel who has spores of alien plants land on his
property. Something To Tide You Over has Leslie Neilson showing
he could do utterly terrifying as well as funny, playing a jealous husband who
plans a grotesque fate for his cheating wife and her lover (Ted Danson;
this movie’s got a great cast.). The Crate has a most surprising
and gruesome discovery made in a University’s basement, and one professor
seeing it as a golden opportunity. Finally, They’re Creeping Up On You
is an absolute nightmare for anyone who hates cockroaches. The stories
have great gallows-humour, and direction and editing, complete with cartoon
segments and comic panels for scene transitions. Add an amazing score from the underrated John Harrison to
make this one an absolute must see.

Trick ‘R Treat (2007) (Main Picture)
Originally this Bryan (X-Men, The
Usual Suspects) Singer
produced piece was going to be a big release for
Halloween 2007, but for some reason it was shelved by the studio several years
before a perfunctory direct to DVD release two years later. This meant
that it flew under many people’s radars, which is a crying shame, because it’s
quite possibly the best Hallow’een movie since… well, Halloween!
Director Michael Dougherty, expanding on an animated short he made
called Season’s Greetings, weaves together several interconnected
stories all taking place on one Halloween night. The principal of the
local high school is taking the Halloween traditions very seriously this year,
a virginal-teen is looking for the right guy for “her first time”, a
bunch of kids decide to prank a girl down the street, and an old shut-in is
having to deal with the consequences of saying Trick to a trick-or-treater.
All of these tales weave in a lot of the iconography and style of the holiday,
each looks at the celebration from a different, but familiar angle and most
have truly killer twists. It’s a glorious celebration of the holiday as a
whole and why we love getting scared. The style is very much EC comics
again, to the point that it, at points, feels like the best sequel Creepshow
never got. (Seriously, don’t bother with Creepshow 2 and avoid 3
like the plague -go for this!). With great directing, a fine cast
(including a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin), and the introduction of
possibly an all new holiday mascot (you will love the character of Sam Hain),
chances are, if this film had been released in cinemas like originally planned,
it would have been a hit. Well, it would at least have been a decent alternative
to Saw… Whatever. Next Halloween, hunt this down and watch with
all your mates, and feel the spirit of the season!

Pop back next time when Ed
takes a look at a vital part in the history of the sub genre, and a true
cornerstone of classic British horror, The Studio That Dripped Blood, Amicus…

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